PM reshuffles well-worn deck
Voters could be forgiven for wondering whether the Gillard government had events in the wrong order over the past week. First was the surprise announcement of an election for mid-September. A day later saw the arrest of Craig Thomson, with publicity carefully choreographed, presumably by police, so as to undermine any momentum that Gillard's announcement might have generated. Then two of Gillard's senior cabinet ministers, Chris Evans and Nicola Roxon, announced they planned to retire, and would stand down immediately from their portfolios. It is said that this has been long planned by both ministers, foreshadowed to the Prime Minister a year ago, and that the announcement is being made now so as to allow new ministers to settle in and Ms Gillard to shape - or reshape - the best team she can take into the election. Perhaps; and perhaps it was the election announcement that prompted the ministers to remind Ms Gillard of their desire to leave at the end of the term. Either way it gave an untidy look to the Prime Minister's control over events, as well as, for cynics or enemies, providing an impression of rats - at least the smarter ones - deserting a sinking ship.
All the more so since Roxon and Evans have been among the more able ministers of the Gillard government, doing a far better job than most in promoting an agenda of government, in explaining and defending government decisions and in being relatively gaffe free. This is not something that can be said of all the remaining team, many of whom have contributed very little with their share in power, and contributed even less to the image of a calm, steady and wise government moving deliberately to implement carefully considered plans designed to improve the common weal. The Gillard team contains quite a few duds, and Gillard has shown how much she is hostage to fortune, and to factions, in retaining them when she had a chance for more thorough change. Perhaps it is a matter of her feeling she needs no new enemies; in fact, Labor's position is so desperate that she simply cannot afford passengers or people unable to add to Labor's campaign.
As it happens, Mark Dreyfus, the new attorney-general, is an able and effective advocate, who has previously performed well and who should be at home with law and justice matters. All the more so given that neither Nicola Roxon nor her predecessor, Robert McClelland, (nor their leaders Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard), have had a reforming agenda in justice matters. This want of an organising rationale was to a degree obscured by the zeal with which government adopted a national security agenda devised by others, the idea of a natural disaster empire, and, more or less opportunely, the organisation of a royal commission into the way state welfare organisations and religious and secular institutions responded to evidence of the sexual abuse of children. Roxon did her best work at health until it was mostly undone by the pragmatism and focus on appearances rather than substance of Kevin Rudd, and later (after Roxon) by Julia Gillard. But she has at least the pleasure, as chief law officer, of seeing her bold tobacco packaging legislation (promoted by her at health) upheld by the High Court. She seemed less in control of debates about the role and reach of government, not only in seeking to extend its surveillance of communications, but, later, unsuccessfully, canvassing a significant reduction of freedom of speech with ''reformed'' anti-discrimination legislation. Labor has not had a liberal attorney-general, or even one with any sort of policy agenda, since Gareth Evans; it seems that Mark Dreyfus is expected to do nothing more than preside. He'll do that well.
Due primarily to decisions made by Julia Gillard when she was education minister, the number of university places has expanded since Labor came to power. Chris Evans has presided, effectively enough, over the follow-on, incidentally ducking, on financial grounds, reports focused on increased net public funding. But if he has has made little lasting impact on policy or programs, that has been, more or less, because of budget or political priorities.
Chris Bowen, who, like Evans before him, has had a long purgatory in immigration, will no doubt be pleased to be out of that agency, believing that it is not entirely his fault that everything he and government have done with refugee policy has been such a political, moral and social disaster. Brendan O'Connor, who takes over at immigration, provides government with an opportunity to rethink its policy - but few would have their hopes up, given the election context. Ms Gillard and her ''dream'' team now have no excuses, and voters have a right to expect no fresh surprises. But, if they are wise, they will not loosen their seat belts yet.